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A New Grace for Meals

By John Mason Lock

Our family devotions include a practice that we’ve been using for almost a decade. In sharing it here, I do not mean to imply that it should be universal. Among its other qualities, surely one of Anglicanism’s gifts is that matters of practice can vary widely without a disruption of communion or of mutual Christian charity. I share this devotion because I have found it so rich and theologically satisfying, even after years of well-worn use. The practice is a responsive grace based on Psalm 104.

A good number of Episcopalians will undoubtedly be familiar with the following responsive grace.

V. The eyes of all wait upon thee, O Lord:
R. And thou givest them their meat in due season.
V. Thou openest wide thine hand:
R. and fillest all things living with plenteousness.
Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive of thy bounty: through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Based on Psalm 145:15-16, this grace is often associated with General Seminary as the customary “refectory” prayer. It has also made its way into the Canadian Book of Common Prayer (1962) and the Anglican Service Book — the traditional-language adaptation of the 1979 prayer book. The obvious benefit of responsive grace is the inclusion of different voices. The fact that the words come directly from Scripture commends itself.

A parallel passage to Psalm 145 is found in Psalm 104. There the psalmist celebrates the wonders of God’s creation and the miracle of his sustaining providence over the whole created order. The psalm opens with a benediction characteristic of this portion of the Psalter:

Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honor and majesty.

As in the structure of a collect, this benediction is followed by a description of who God is and what he does in creation. These take the form of seven relative clauses starting with Who:

Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment:
Who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters:
Who maketh the clouds his chariot:
Who walketh upon the wings of the wind:
Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:
Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.

The succeeding verses further describe God’s work in creation. He sends water to the hills, valleys, and springs, and he gives food to all that live. No less than 20 living things are mentioned: beasts, donkeys, fowls, cattle, humans, herbs, grapes, wheat, olives, trees, cedars, birds, storks, firs, wild goats, conies (small, marmot-like animals), lions, beasts of the sea, the leviathan (a mythical sea creature symbolic of all the unknown and wild elements found in the ocean). Far from the deist conception of God as the detached clock-maker who creates the natural order but does not interfere with it, the psalmist paints a dynamic portrait of the created order: animate, inanimate, trees, animals, and rivers, all utterly dependent on God.

The psalm concludes, as so many do, with the hopeful anticipation of the manifestation of God, what the prophets will call the day of the Lord. It is the prayerful expectation that God will make all things right, bringing justice for the oppressed and judgment for the oppressors:

The glory of the LORD shall endure for ever: the LORD shall rejoice in his works.
He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth: he toucheth the hills, and they smoke.
I will sing unto the LORD as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the LORD.
Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless thou the LORD, O my soul. Praise ye the LORD.

The psalm thus moves from praise and acknowledgment to a description of God’s providential care of the creation to, finally, a view of the world made right by the justice and mercy of God. The word resurrection is of course never used, but the Christological implications of the Psalm are evident. God is the foundation of our lives and of the whole created order. It is by his will that they are created and have their being (Rev. 4:11).

The hostile powers of sin and death have claimed the creation as their own, but God in his goodness has sent his Son to die and rise again, that he might reconcile all things to himself. If we are to read the Psalms as the prayers of the totus Christus, as St. Augustine teaches us, it is hard not to see how this psalm is prophetic of Christ and the eschaton.

Sandwiched in the middle of the psalm are verses that function as a bridge between the description of God’s providential care of creation and his final revelation in the last day. These verses are perhaps the most pregnant with Christological meaning. In a sense these verses express in toto the meaning of the psalm. Our family devotion has adapted them in the following fashion (taken from the inimitable Coverdale translation):

V. O Lord, how manifold are thy works:
R. In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches.
V. These wait all upon thee:
R. That thou mayest give them meat in due season.
V. When thou givest it them they gather it:
R. And when thou openest thy hand they are filled with good.
V. When thou hidest thy face they are troubled:
R. When thou takest away their breath they die, and are turned again to their dust.
V. When thou lettest thy breath go forth they shall be made:
R And thou shalt renew the face of the earth.

In our practice, these versicles conclude with the German Lutheran grace, which is a nice foil to the theological depth and complexity of the psalm, with its simple plea:

Come, dear Lord Jesus, be our guest, and may these gifts to us be blessed. Amen.

On a purely superficial level, these verses put us in mind of our mortality and the mortality of all living things. Our experience of hunger, desire, and longing are all a foreshadowing of that time when the Lord shall take away our “breath” and we will “turn again to our dust.” Yet as Christians we know that death does not have the final word, and the psalm does not leave us with the singular truth of death.

Rather, we are to turn our hearts and minds to the work of the Spirit, who will renew the face of the earth. If hunger is a sign of our eventual death, the satiation of that hunger is anticipation when all the creation shall be renewed, including ourselves. How much better if this sign of resurrection is accompanied by food lovingly prepared, a table carefully set, fellowship free from malice and full of good cheer and good will.

It would be too much to say that the family table is the table of Christ, but surely at its best moments the meal shared together by family is a parable of the resurrection and the marriage supper of the Lamb that is to come (Rev. 19). Every time my family says this prayer, it is to these themes that I return: hunger, death, resurrection, and most importantly Christ himself, who, God willing, is our dear guest.

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